Rugby Union: Leader of the opposition with a new constituency

Paul Trow finds that Tony Hallett's return to rugby activity is likely to be lively
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The Independent Online
It happens all the time in politics, people resigning from high office and resurfacing a few months later in commerce. So why not in rugby union?

Cliff Brittle might have thought - and hoped - he had seen the back of Tony Hallett after in effect ousting him from the corridors of power in the English game last autumn, but the former secretary of the Rugby Football Union has made a dramatic return to the front line.

After four months of "resting" and chatting to chums on the phone, Hallett takes up his new position as chief executive of Richmond, the club for whom he played during the Seventies, in a fortnight's time.

And despite his own protestations to the contrary, it seems better than an even bet that the 52-year-old former naval officer will soon become involved again in the on-going dialogue between the senior clubs and the RFU as the game grapples with the deepening crises over cash and fixtures.

Arguably, these problems originated with decisions taken during Hallett's two-year reign at Twickenham, but now the gamekeeper has turned poacher and he has Vision 2000, Brittle's recently published personal blueprint for the future of English rugby, firmly in his sights.

Hallett is scathing about several of Brittle's suggestions - including the introduction of a regional tournament as a bridge between club and international rugby, professionalism for just the top two divisions of clubs, and the creation of an amateur England team.

"The idea of introducing provincial rugby along the lines of the southern hemisphere doesn't work here," Hallett, who first joined the RFU Council in 1979, said. "It is simply divisional rugby in disguise and there is no natural geographical set-up for it here. It has a history of failing to attract television, sponsorship or gates. The backbone of our game is the clubs and they should act as our provinces. To ask the clubs who pay the players to release them for yet another round of matches is retrograde.

"The clubs will view any attempt to reintroduce divisional rugby as a direct threat. If we want to create something similar to the Super 12, the answer could be a European league. We should always have the European Cup, as it has brought new revenue and sponsorship into the game, but the European Conference has been a lossmaker, which is not sponsored or broadcast. A Conference match doesn't excite like a fixture with, say, Leicester.

"As for the proposed professional-amateur divide, I thought we'd agreed the game would be seamless so that everybody - clubs, players, coaches and referees - would have the choice whether to be professional or amateur. A lot of clubs in Jewson Leagues One and Two do have professional ambitions, and we shouldn't arbitrarily deny them. If they are suffocated then we'll be back to the old shamateur days. You want to help the successful clubs to work their way up the ladder.

"Also, I don't understand Cliff's idea of staging amateur internationals. It would mean another tier of bureaucracy and who would want it? There can be only one England team. Amateur rugby league never got off the ground, and I don't believe this would either. Are we going to start asking the players again whether they are amateur or professional?"

As he contemplates his new role Hallett emphasises quite different issues. "The problems confronting club rugby are twofold - finance and the need for a structured season. Club rugby has just had a fallow period with no competitive matches to offer its supporters over a five- week period. But it should be possible to structure the season so that both club and international rugby can flourish.

"We need to start with a clean sheet, ask what the ideal requirements are for clubs and countries, and put a solid, sensible domestic fixture list in place. There has to be a defined period for international rugby - matches and training. The other Five Nations countries should agree to hold their training sessions at the same time as England so the disruption to clubs is kept to a minimum.

"I believe the demand is there for club rugby, but we have to go out and find it. A few years ago Richmond were happy to see more than 500 spectators at a league game. Now we are disappointed if our attendance is less than 6,000, and we are aiming to get it up to around 10,000.

"The objective for every club is for the gate money to match the wage bill. There are great financial stresses on clubs, but the absolutely essential thing is not to spend more than your budgeted income. And you have to know your bank manager well."

With the benefit of hindsight, one apparent mistake during Hallett's regime was not to put England's leading 150 players under contract to the RFU as the southern hemisphere countries did when the game went open. "Maybe we should have done that, but it's too late now for the RFU to try to impose that on the clubs. The clubs have invested heavily, but they would never hinder a player's international ambitions. To have your players playing international rugby enhances their profile. What the game needs is strong leadership."

Talking of leadership, Hallett is baffled there is no apparent successor to him on the RFU horizon. "An organisation that size should have someone at the helm, be it a chief executive or secretary, otherwise who is co- ordinating all the staff and their work?" Meanwhile, Hallett's priority is to help establish Richmond among the top six clubs in England, but it is inconceivable that his negotiating skills and experience will not be called upon on a wider stage. "I don't wish to be involved with English Rugby Partnership, as I'd like to concentrate on Richmond for the time being," Hallett said, a shade unconvincingly. "But obviously I'll be there in the background."